Brenda, Raj, Tom, and Vickie, who formed the junior sales-and-marketing team at the start-up Awesome Products, Inc., were brainstorming email content with which to advertise their remarkable new dusting cap. Brenda had a sudden flash of inspiration, grabbed the keyboard of the room’s computer, and excitedly started typing. The others looked up at the large monitor that hung along one wall of the room as words quickly appeared there.
“‘Incredibly,’” Tom started reading aloud right away, “‘tall people must duck when walking through doorways.’”
He frowned at Brenda, who had stopped typing. “First of all, why do you think it’s incredible that tall people have to duck? Second, why do you think all tall people have to duck, anyway? I’m tall, and I don’t have to duck when I walk through doorways.”
“That’s not what she typed,” interjected Vickie, who secretly regarded Tom’s height as average. She continued, “Brenda typed, ‘Incredibly tall people must duck when walking through doorways.’”
Not noticing Brenda nodding, Tom threw a gentle smile at Vickie. “You forgot to pause after ‘Incredibly.’ You see, there’s no hyphen connecting ‘Incredibly’ and ‘tall.’ So you don’t read them together.”
Silence momentarily filled the room. Then Raj jumped in. “Actually, Tom, I’m afraid you’re reading it wrong. There’s no comma after ‘Incredibly’ in that sentence, so there’s also no pause. You should simply read it straight through. ‘Incredibly tall people’—that is, people who are incredibly tall. That’s who Brenda is writing about. Which makes sense, when you think about the product we’re marketing.”
Brenda couldn’t help but sympathize with Tom. She herself might have read the sentence the same way he had if she hadn’t already done business with the firm’s proofreading service, ProofedLikeYESterday, and picked up some really valuable yet simple grammar tips from it. In fact—though she’d never admit this to anyone, because it probably wasn’t something that team players should do—when typing the sentence just then, she’d hoped to trip someone up so she could show off how much she knew. She just hadn’t expected Vickie and Raj to beat her to the punch.
But with the persistence that had made him one of the company’s top salespeople, even at his relatively young age, Tom continued, “Hold on now. The ‘Incredibly’ doesn’t modify the ‘tall’ unless they’re joined with a hyphen—like this, right?” And he quickly commandeered the keyboard and typed so that “Incredibly-tall” appeared on the screen.
Raj shook his head. “It sounds as though you’re not aware of the—”
An excited Tom couldn’t restrain himself. “Sorry to cut you off, Raj. But I distinctly remember that millennial ad campaign we launched last week. I saw it online just this morning.” He reached for the keyboard again, but this time, instead of typing a phrase, he opened a web browser. Soon, they all saw the home page for the product that their company had recently launched (with great initial success). Dominating the first screen of the home page was “If you have stupid-rich parents, you don’t need to read on.”
Tom pointed victoriously at the monitor and eyed each of his three colleagues. “Read it and weep, my friends. This proves my point.”
“Your point being what exactly?” Now it was Raj’s turn to be gentle.
That wasn’t the response Tom had been expecting; he lowered his finger. “My point is that if a word is modifying the adjective—you know, acting as an adverb—we connect the two words with a hyphen.”
Raj continued almost as though he hadn’t been interrupted in the first place. “It sounds as though you’re not aware of the don’t-hyphenate-adverbs-that-are-created-by-adding-’ly’-to-an-adjective rule, my friend.”
“The what rule?”
“There’s no need to insert a hyphen after any adverb that’s created by adding ‘ly’ to an adjective,” Vickie said. “Let me back up. See, the only reason to insert a hyphen after the modifier preceding ‘tall’ here would be to alert the reader that the word is modifying only ‘tall’—you know, acting as an adverb—and not modifying 'tall people,' in which case, it would be acting as an adjective.”
Vickie would have paused there to take a drink of water if she hadn’t been pretty sure Brenda would take the opportunity to jump in and steal the spotlight, so she continued. “But we don’t have to provide any alert with an adverb like ‘incredibly.’ See, adverbs that come from adding ‘ly’ to an adjective are always adverbs; they’re never adjectives. And ‘incredible’ is an adjective, right?”
She did pause here only for as long as it took Tom to quickly nod. She promptly continued, “So ‘incredibly,’ which is formed by adding ‘ly’ to ‘incredible’—well, after removing the ‘le’ first, of course—would always be an adverb. So it would always be modifying only ‘tall.’ Hyphen not needed and, therefore, not wanted.”
At that very moment, Brenda tossed her hair, getting everyone’s, including Vickie’s, attention.
In that brief moment of silence, Brenda seized her chance, taking the reins. She said, “But we had to add a hyphen after ‘stupid’ there in ‘stupid-rich parents,’ because ‘stupid’ is usually an adjective—modifying a noun. Without the hyphen, our audience might think we’re using ‘stupid’ to describe rich parents. You’ll agree, won’t you, Tom, that we don’t want anyone to think Awesome Products, Inc., is saying it’s good to have rich parents who are stupid?”
Tom spluttered, “Of course not.”
At which point Vickie jumped back in, echoing Tom. “Of course not. So we insert a hyphen between ‘stupid’ and ‘rich’ so it’s clear that ‘stupid’ refers to ‘rich’ instead of to ‘rich parents.’” Then she herself waved toward the screen. “And we do this because it’s our job to keep readers from initially stumbling over our marketing message.”
Tom quickly regained his composure. “The people we’re actually referring to are parents who are stupid-rich. Well, to use less millennial language—parents who are rich to a stupid degree.”
Then he beamed. “In fact,” he said, “here’s something for you. I know that ‘stupid-rich parents’ and ‘stupidly rich parents’ aren’t exactly the same thing, but still—hang on.” One more time, he typed on the keyboard. “Stupidly rich parents” appeared on the monitor. He then moved the cursor to the space between “Stupidly” and “rich.” His team members held their collective breath as Tom’s index finger hovered over the key just to the right of the “0” on the keyboard—before he retracted it and leaned back in his chair, folding his arms and nodding his head at them.
“Yes!” “He’s got it!” “Exactly!”
Then Raj noticed a flicker of something on Brenda’s face.
“What is it, Bren?” he asked. Tom tried to exchange an intrigued look with Vickie: “Bren”? But Vickie was busy wondering how Raj had been able to detect Brenda wanted to say anything at all since “Bren” hadn’t been flinging her hair around again.
Brenda sighed. “Well, there’s this movie coming out next month, Crazy Rich Asians.”
“I know what you’re going to say,” Raj said. “You’re going to ask why they don’t use a hyphen there.”
Even though Brenda didn’t like knowing she was so easy to read, especially by Raj, she had to acknowledge he was right. So she shrugged and vaguely smiled.
He knowingly returned her smile. “That’s the writer making a clever pun. Not only are the folks very rich, but they’re also apparently quite wild. Omitting a hyphen from that term leaves it open to both interpretations. Nice.”
Vickie clapped her hands once. “Excellent! Now let’s get back to marketing our dusting cap.”
“Let’s do it!” the others replied.
Stay tuned for the next article in this “Comma drama, hyper-hyphenation, and …” series, when the team’s supervisor tries to crash the party with an “early-bird special at a family-owned restaurant.”